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In 1999 Sweden passed legislation that criminalized the buying of sex, and decriminalized the selling of sex.

The groundbreaking principle behind this legislation is clearly stated in the government’s literature on the law: “In Sweden prostitution is regarded as an aspect of male violence against women and children. It is officially acknowledged as a form of exploitation of women and children and constitutes a significant social problem… gender equality will remain unattainable so long as men buy, sell and exploit women and children by prostituting them.”

This law is the only one of its kind in the world, and it seems to be incredibly successful according to Swedish officials. The law, which has criminalized the purchase and brokering of sexual services, provides for up to six years in prison for pimps, up to 10 years for traffickers of prostitutes. The john could face up to six months in prison if caught in the act.

The results of this strategy are impressive. “We have significantly less prostitution than our neighbouring countries, even if we take into account the fact that some of it happens underground,” says Trolle. “We only have between 105 and 130 women – both on the Internet and on the street – active (in prostitution) in Stockholm today. In Oslo, it’s 5,000.

Swedish Prostitution Ban An Apparent Enormous Success

Okay, not quite my beaten track, but interesting still. For three reasons mainly.

The first is that its effective. Demand side criminalisation doesn’t work for a lot of things, the war on drugs is a prominent example, but for prostitution it appears effective. I can see the benefit socially and societally of putting the onus on the guys as well. They’re the scumbags in this equation, as the statement in the Swedish law quite clearly spells out.

On the other hand we have the liberal attitude towards it typified by the lax Dutch laws on the sex trade. Clearly there is no suggestion here that soliciting a prostitute amounts to a form of abuse which should be outlawed. While it’s heavily regulated in the Netherlands, it is legal and subject to all the benefits of a legal but regulated trade. If I’m not mistaken, the result of the legalisation in the Netherlands has caused a mini-boom in the sex trade and it grew rapidly after it was set free.

Which leads me to my first point taken to its conclusion. Where does the demand go? Do the people who used to go to sex workers now divert that libido into casual hook ups? Time ‘spent’ with their partners? Or does it just evaporate, an urge that exists only because the capacity to fulfills it exists? 

I don’t like the “it just vanishes” suggestion. It seems too simplistic a depiction of behaviour as complex as visiting a sex worker. Patronising a sex worker can’t be inherently a casual and ‘normal’ thing which like an itch just goes away if you ignore it long enough.

The second is that the Swedes are the first people to do this? What does that say about the dominant sexual morality of all cultures? The Swedes are supposed to be one of the most liberal people, and at the cutting edge of the thin line that straddles socialism, capitalism and the iron rice bowl. No other society has made the buyer the offender before? In this age of free market capitalism where everyone understand that that demand runs markets, no one has ever made the buyer the criminal? It says nothing good I’m sure.

The final thing is that Hong Kong stands in between, straddling between the laissez faire culture of Amsterdam and the ‘johns are criminals’ world of Sweden. Here we have legal prostitution, but only of the small owner/operator sort.

Large brothels are technically illegal, as is living of the proceeds of pimping or by running a brothel. The idea is that via media that there is a place for the prostitute but not for those that profit based on the control of prostitutes, that being a more organised and systematic vice worthy of punishment and as a finance source of organised crime. Not that I’m saying this never happens in Hong Kong, I’m sure the local triads control plenty of brothel, but I’m looking at the abstract legal position here. 

One final concluding thought; isn’t it intriguing that after thousands of years of so called civilisation, we still find the regulation, perhaps even the acknowledgement, of the worlds oldest profession to be a morally ambivalent and treacherous area, which requires deference to local cultural mores rather than any standard civilizational norms appearing?

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4 Comments

  1. Well that is a good example of how propaganda works. What is success – and who bothered to measure it? Yes street prostitution is down – or was, it seems to be increasing, prices are up and the indoor business is thriving especially along the west coast, adjacent to Denmark. It is also far more dangerous on the streets, and more difficult for social services to provide aid to street workers. In fact Sweden does not have a liberal tradition, that is the whole point. This was possible only because Sweden had very little prostitution, had no liberal tradition and had a remarkably homogeneous radical women’s movement. Criminalising purchase but not sale is legally dubious and illogical. This was symbolic law and not based on any evidence, and was a panic reaction to Sweden joining the EU and fears of being flooded with foreign sex workers. No wonder no other country wants anything to do with this.

    • mtalib
    • Posted December 18, 2007 at 7:24 am
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    Thanks for your comment Michael.

    The aspect of it that I find really intriguing is your statement, quite rightly, that Sweden’s radical feminist movement is inherently illiberal, as it must be based on more dictatorial impulses, which comes out quite clearly when you contrast it with the Dutch solution.

    I didn’t know that the law was intended to be entirely symbolic and EU induced panic, which would explain of why it hasn’t been looked at by any other country.

    I do disagree with you that it is illogical to criminalise just the men. I think it would have the beneficial effect of taking the inherent tension out of the relationship between sex workers and law enforcement, and as sex workers are often subject to a lot of unreported crime, this would potentially increase the protection that they enjoy from the law and society as a whole.

    • Patrick Hadley
    • Posted December 20, 2007 at 9:22 pm
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    Demand side criminalisation is not a major factor in the “war on drugs”. The laws are very much more focussed on suppliers than on customers. Singapore might be thought an exception, but even there the severe penalties for possession of relatively small amounts is based on the assumption that one could sell to others. In most countries possession of a personal supply of even hard drugs is illegal but it is dealt with very leniently. Only a very small proportion of drug users are ever prosecuted simply for possession of drugs for their own enjoyment. As a result the demand for drugs is not much affected by the penalties for their use.

    Increasing the risk of arrest and the severity of the penalty received for drug use would certainly be the only effective way of reducing demand. Undoubtedly the same is also true of prostitution.

    • john cramer
    • Posted December 21, 2007 at 9:31 am
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    Hadley – are you for real? How many of the millions in prison in the USA are there because of possession of a small quantity of forbidden drugs – a great many. Yet the drug trade thrives.

    As for Sweden – if you read their newspapers you get the feeling that the Swedish government really dislikes its population especially the men.


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